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Stewart's spark, second-half goals by Kirovski, Donovan, lead 2-0 shutout of Venezuela.

U.S.-Venezuela analysis

Vastly improved effort in second half sends Americans to a shutout victory.

(Saturday, March 29, 2003) -- The United States men's 2-0 victory this afternoon over Venezuela was a tale of two vastly different halves at Seattle's Seahawk Stadium.

In the first half, the U.S. was mediocre in the midfield and, as a result, looked disorganized and generated little effective offense. Then, in the second half, with U.S. coach Bruce Arena making a couple of key substitutions, the Americans gained control of the midfield which led to numerous scoring chances and goals by strikers Jovan Kirovski and Landon Donovan.

For the first half hour, the only effective play the U.S. got was from midfielder John O'Brien and defender Bobby Convey. Both created some attack by pushing forward, but the run of play was clearly in Venezuela's favor and the U.S. defense had to be sharp to limit the visitors to only a single scoring opportunity.

Play over the entire first half was neither spirited or skillful. The U.S. looked to be playing a 4-2-2-2 formation with O'Brien and Pablo Mastroeni playing behind Chris Klein and DaMarcus Beasley in the midfield with Kirovski and Brian McBride in front of them. Only O'Brien was able to hold the ball and try to open the Venezuela defense with passes or by carrying the ball himself.

At the start of the second half, Arena inserted veteran Earnie Stewart for Klein and the entire middle of the field seemed to open up. Stewart, the "Man of the Match," had two shots and created two other chances in the first 10 minutes. He pulled defenders with him and this opened space for both Beasley and O'Brien. The midfielders began to give better service to McBride and Kirovski in front and when Landon Donovan came in on the hour, the match belonged to the U.S.

"We needed this game to mix players," Arena said, noting he had fielded an almost exclusively MLS-based team in the U.S.'s last three games. "These kinds of games build the team and it's an opportunity to bring in some foreign-based players."

The were surely some high points for the U.S. today. Stewart, who many have considered too old at 34 to fit into Arena's plans, demonstrated clearly he is ready to contribute at least in the qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.

O'Brien, who has spent much of the European season rehabbing a stubborn Achilles injury, suffered last August, showed he is completely fit after playing four matches in Europe in two weeks and then making the long flight to Seattle. He was still the most energetic American player for the first 45 minutes.

The Convey experiment, converting the young midfielder into a left back, seems to be going well. He was sound defensively today, and pushed the ball forward very well, especially in the early going.

One surprise today was Kirovski. After an absence from the U.S. team since well before the World Cup, he scored a goal today and almost had two others. Defender Frankie Hejduk proved he wants to get back into the mix and be considered when the matches begin to count.

Kirovski, playing as a target, received high marks from Arena. He scored a "solid, opportunistic goal," the coach said. "It's not always the best spot for Jovan. He's a little bit more comfortable playing behind the frontrunners. Jovan is only 27 years old, and I think he still has a future with the national team. He just needs to get into a club environment where he is playing more consistently."

Then referring to the fact that Kirovski is mostly a reserve player for Birmingham City in England's Premier League, Arena noted "He's got to get in a situation where he plays more regularly."

Players from both teams had trouble keeping their feet on today's grass field, installed last week on top of the stadium's regular artificial surface. It was amazingly playable considering how new it was, but it was cut closely and was slick from rain, leading to much slipping and sliding.

While the victory was not particularly artistic and against an opponent rated 69th in the world, the No. 10 Americans got in a good week of training, bringing European players into the mix. This should help as the U.S. moves toward more meaningful matches this summer in the FIFA Confederations Cup and the CONCACAF Gold Cup.


U.S. player ratings

Starters

Goalkeeper Kasey Keller - 6.5: A quiet afternoon and a professional response. Made a big save in the 29th minute when the match was scoreless and commanded his box well.

Defender Bobby Convey - 5.5: Continues to show improvement as he tries to make the conversion into an outside defender. Pushed the ball forward well, but his crossing could be better. More importantly, his defending showed improvement.

Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 5.5: Generally played well, but was at times was inconsistent. Made more than a few errors and at times did not blend well with Pope in the middle.

Defender Eddie Pope - 5: Played like a man in his first international match after a long injury layoff. Seems to be regaining his fitness, but still has a way to go to get real match sharpness.

Defender Steve Cherundolo - 6: Probably the best American back today. Defended well, provided support in the midfield and pushed into the offensive end on occasion.

Midfielder John O'Brien - 6.5: Through the first half hour, he pretty much carried his team. Until he tired in the second half, was the key to the U.S. attack and got back often to make big defensive stops. Showed he has regained fitness and is a key player.

Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni - 5: Not a great outing. He was not able to control the ball and while he was sound defensively, contributed little.

Midfielder Chris Klein - 5: A few good minutes in the early going, but was not as effective as he has been in some of the other U.S. matches this year.

Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley - 6: Continued to show that even at the international level, pure speed can kill. Was ound today and put in some terrific defensive stops. One criticism remains that he gets pushed off the ball to easily by much bigger opponents such as Venezuela's tough Luis Vallenilla.

Forward Jovan Kirovski - 6: Not much of a first half when he received little service, but he had was solid for the first 19 minutes of the second half -- until he came out -- when Stewart opened things up for him. Scored a goal and showed he is back in the U.S. picture.

Forward Brian McBride - 5: Was not in sync today. Missed a sitter on Beasley's great pass, something he would normally put away. Did not get much service, but created little on his own and did little with the chances that came his way.

Reserves

Midfielder Earnie Stewart (46th minute for Klein) - 7: Was the best American today, showing he still has a lot left in his 34-year-old legs. Turned things around for the U.S. in the second half. .

Forward Landon Donovan (59th minute for Kirovski) - 6.5: His goal displayed a new level of maturity. Granted he came on when the Venezuela legs were starting to go, but he showed both pace and imagination. A solid effort.

Defender Frankie Hejduk (66th Minute for Cherundolo) - 5.5: Was not called on to do much. Did his job on defense and helped in the midfield.

Forward Edson Buddle (80th minute for McBride) - 5: His first cap came after the match was already decided, but he gained some experience and is expected to make a contribution in the future.

Nick Garcia (88th minute for Pope) - no rating: A few minutes of mop-up duty earned an appearance fee after a week of hard work in training camp.

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